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Forwards: Regulars & In The Mix

One of the nicer features on the Edmonton Oilers website is the Depth Chart. It gives us a decent idea of where players sit during the off-season, and what kind of role is being envisioned for them. It also gives us a nice starting point for determining who has an NHL job already, and who needs to earn one in camp. Here is my list of players who are locks to make the team:

Left Wing: Erik Cole, Dustin Penner, Robert Nilsson, Ethan Moreau
Centre: Shawn Horcoff, Sam Gagner, Kyle Brodziak
Right Wing: Ales Hemsky, Fernando Pisani, Andrew Cogliano, Zack Stortini

That's eleven forwards, out of a maximum of fourteen spots. What is of interest to most of us, though, are the guys who aren't sure things. Here they are, in order of their probability of making the team this year, and their highest possible starting role.

Marc Pouliot

Pouliot has been the darling of the Oilogosphere almost since being drafted in the first round of 2003. Lowetide has led the charge, and it's easy to see why- Pouliot is a complete player, at least in junior and as a minor-league professional, a superior passer with decent size, skating ability, and all-round offensive skills. He also has had the reputation of being a responsible defensive player, the kind of player who typically can land in any role in the NHL and then work his way up the depth charts. Just turned 23, and with two previous partial seasons at the NHL-level, Pouliot is all but assured to be with the Oilers as a top-12 forward. Particularly important is his contract status, waiver eligibility, and his faceoff ability.

The only thing standing in Pouliot's way is himself. He was expected to make the team two years ago, and had a disappointing training camp. Recalled part way through the season, he excelled to close off the year, and was certainly envisioned as an ingredient in the 2007-08 team. After yet another poor training camp, he made the team, went pointless with an ugly plus-minus, and spent the majority of the season in the minor leagues. He looked good after his recall this past season, but another poor training camp, combined with strong performances by other players, could end his Oilers career.
Possible starting position: Third-line centre

Ryan Potulny

There are two things to remember about newcomer Potulny: the Oilers acquired him this summer, presumably with a purpose in mind, and he's waiver-eligible. The fact that the team could lose him for nothing makes it highly probable that he starts the season with Edmonton, even if it is as pressbox fodder.

Like both Pouliot and Gilbert Brule, Rotulny is entering training camp with some NHL experience (44 games, 7 goals, 7 assists). He played a sheltered role on the 06-07 Philadelphia Flyers (one of the few teams worse than the Oilers of the same year) with a reasonable degree of success for a young player. A better statistical look at him can be found here. He can play centre and left-wing.
Possible starting position: Fourth-line winger

Rob Schremp

In contrast to Marc Pouliot, Rob Schremp has been the darling of the message boards since even before he was drafted in 2004. Bryanbryoil has been his biggest backer, and it's easy to see Schremp as an appealing player. He has always had the reputation for top-flight offensive skills, and solidified that reputation with a spectacular 2005-06 with the London Knights. He's been expected by some to make the team for every season since the lockout, and it seems likely that he will this season.

Standing in Schremp's way is a lot of bad luck. Robert Nilsson, Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano are all superior players, both in offensive and defensive play, and Schremp, coming off a knee injury, was passed by all three of them last season. He's also on a two-way contract and can be sent to the minors without needing to clear waivers. Working in his favour is his successful transition to the wing, where his future as an Oiler lies, and the reported work he's done on both his skating and his strength/conditioning. Personally, I think he's a better prospect than Potulny, but his two-way contract means that he's less likely to start the year in Edmonton. If he has a phenomenal training camp, Schremp may force his way on to a scoring line. I did a detailed comparison between Schremp and other highly touted OHL prospects here.
Possible starting position: Second-line winger

Liam Reddox

Like most of the players on the fringes of regular employment in Edmonton, size is not an asset for Liam Reddox. Despite that, however, he's managed to become a gritty, two-way player at the minor league level, even more remarkable given that in 2006-07, he couldn't crack 30 points in a full season at the ECHL level. His transformation over the summer of 2007 is possibly the biggest single-season leap ever taken by an Oilers prospect. His performance this year had Kelly Buchberger calling him an AHL-level Ryan Smyth.

He is in tough to make this roster, however. Despite his two-way play, Reddox doesn't have the same profile as a player like Schremp, Pouliot, or even Gilbert Brule, largely due to his invisibility in 2006-07 and his 4th round draft selection (draft position is, in my opinion, the most overrated way to judge a prospect 2+ years out). He will see time as an Oiler this season, but it likely won't be out of training camp. Still, a good showing in the fall could earn him a spot on the 4th line.
Possible starting position: Fourth-line winger

Gilbert Brule

A player who many have slotted closer to NHL duty, Gilbert Brule is a mess. After a stellar junior career culminating in his 6th overall selection by Columbus, Brule was rushed to the NHL level before he was ready, and in addition to a number of possibly career-limiting injuries, his confidence has to have been shattered. Despite 146 NHL games played, Brule is not at this point an NHL player. Columbus realized it toward the end of 2007-08, sending Brule to Syracuse, where he posted 10 points in 16 games.

Often compared to Michael Peca, for a number of reasons, Brule has yet to show that he has the durablity to survive his crash-and-bang mentality, or the offensive ability to score at the NHL level. Widely labelled a bust, he's still young (only 21) and has time to resurrect his career. He may see NHL duty this season, but probably not until injuries force a call-up.
Possible starting position: Fourth-line winger

Other players who may be considered for an NHL role, in order of likelihood:

Jean-Francois Jacques - has the physical tools for an NHL role, and the size, but injuries will likely prevent him from playing to start the season.
Bryan Lerg - undrafted college player is a gifted scorer, likely needs AHL time.
Slava Trukhno - skilled forward needs prime-time AHL development minutes.
Tim Sestito - role player was recently extended, but shouldn't get a job out of camp.
Ryan O'Marra - ECHL all-star last season. He isn't ready for that big a leap.